For eight years, he's been re-inventing late-night television on CBS' "The Late Late Show." Johnny Carson never jumped out of a plane with Tom Cruise, or sang "Carpool Karaoke" with Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder, even Barbra Streisand.
It's a cliché that many in Hollywood stop traffic. With "Crosswalk: The Musical," James Corden does it literally.
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz said, "It's fun watching you sit around the table with Kim Kardashian and asking her to rank the style choices of her sisters. That's fun!"
"I think that's the currency of our show," said Corden. "I think joy is the currency. We've always wanted to create a show that is joyful, that's uplifting, a place where you feel like you can go and have a great time."
But Corden – at the top of his game – is leaving the show, and the country. The 44-year-old is signing off and returning to London. There are only four shows left.
"I'll all be gobsmacked and amazed," he said. "This was a part of my life. But my wife and I, we always knew that this was an adventure, and not a final destination."
"Is there something you'll miss the most?" asked Mankiwicz.
"More than anything, I'm just gonna miss my friends that I've made here at the show," he replied. "I'm gonna miss the feeling of coming into this office every day and knowing that someone's gonna make me laugh."
Before we get to why he's going, let's marvel in how it began: almost by accident. "It was inconceivable," Corden said. "Like, I don't look like I should be hosting a TV show. I'd never stood on a monologue mark and done a monologue. I'd never interviewed a guest. Nothing about this should work!"
But work it did, which speaks volumes about Corden's talent. Virtually unknown in the U.S., he was a familiar face in England, on the screen and the stage. Mostly he was a comedy actor. "I would probably just say I'm a performer; that's probably what I am. I just love performing. It's all I've ever loved. … I don't remember a time that I didn't just love performing."
Success in London's West End brought him to Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for best actor in a play, for "One Man, Two Guvnors."
That led to a pitch meeting with CBS executives in Hollywood. He had a sitcom; they wanted it. He turned them down. "The more I lived with it and thought about it, I thought, very unlikely this will work on an American network."
But they started talking, casually, about the hour after Stephen Colbert's show. "I said, 'I think you've got an opportunity to have an hour there that embraces the internet; make a show that launches at 12:37, but people consume and watch all day because that's how that audience are consuming their content now. Your traditional 12:30 audience, they're still watching, they're just watching in a different way.'"
To his surprise, CBS offered him the show.
Mankiewicz asked, "Were you afraid? Or did you fear failure? Better way to put it?"
"I don't know if I fear failure," said Corden, "because I think that's an interesting thing, failure. You can only really judge anything by your own personal human growth. So, saying that, you want the show to succeed. But in truth, I think it was quite easy for me, because I thought, I was so convinced that it wouldn't work!"
But it did, since Night One. Corden transformed a familiar format; the couch and desk remained, but the guests appeared together, with segments that made it more a viral variety show than anything else.
Take "Carpool Karaoke." "It's a crazy thing," said Mankiewicz, "just the notion of driving around with an artist and singing their songs. I mean, it's so simple, and so perfect. It's genius."
Corden said, "Well, I think there's something very humanizing about it. The songs are the glue that kind of hold it all together. But there's an intimacy that comes from that interview, which I think, it's a humanizing environment. It's what we all do. We all sing these songs in the car."
But not with Paul McCartney, which goes down as a personal favorite for Corden. "The segment with Paul McCartney was probably the pinnacle of that as an idea," he said. "Going into his house, which he hadn't stepped in, I think, since he left [Liverpool]. And he said, 'I just don't feel comfortable. I feel weird about it.'
"I sort of go, 'Should we go in?' And he goes, 'Yeah. Let's do it!' And, my God! What have I done to deserve such memories?"
Given all that success, and how much he's changed late night, why leave now? The answer is both personal and professional. Corden said, "We really want our children to experience life in London. We're blown away that they've even had the experience of living in another country. It's how much you look at your professional life and your career and your personal life and your growth as a family. That's what it is. There's just so many other things that I'd like to try and see what I might be capable of."
He seems capable of largely anything. He's starring in a limited series, "Mammals," out now on Amazon Prime.
"More than anything, I'd sort of, I just gotta go and see what's out there," he said.
He is also navigating a recent bump in the road. The owner of a posh New York restaurant briefly banned him after a dust-up with the wait staff. Corden apologized in a phone call, and then on the air.
The owner lifted the ban. But in this era of endless news cycles and social media, the story won't die. Corden is clearly tired of discussing it.
Mankiewicz asked, "This little round of internet issue that has gone on, it must have bummed you out?"
"Perspective is really important," said Corden. "We really try and make such a positive show. Try and seek that positivity. And if you put your focus there, that's what I just try and do, is what I've tried to do every day that we're here, you know?"
Corden has figured out one way to navigate these peculiar times: "I don't have social media on my phone. It's not a world that I sort of engage in."
He's been fully engaged in "The Late Late Show." Now he's leaving it for good.
Mankiewicz asked, "Can you envision a scenario where you would return to late night television?"
"I can't envisage a scenario where I would return as a late night host. I'd be very, very surprised if it did. I'd be gobsmacked!" he laughed.
It sounds like he's already been gobsmacked by his adopted country since 2015. "I think America is a wonderful place," he said. "It is a very, very special place to work, a very, very special place to live, and it's a very, very special place to sit behind a desk and tell people to stick around and you'll be right back. What a privilege. It really, really is."
For more info:
- "The Late Late Show with James Corden" on CBS and Paramount+
- The definitive list of every "Carpool Karaoke"
Story produced by Gabriel Falcon and Anthony Laudato. Editor: Chad Cardin.